By Sarah Mansheim
A Greenbrier County House of Delegates member is a co-sponsor of a bill that would seek to deny city and county governments the ability to pass nondiscriminatory ordinances on behalf of their LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) citizens. House Bill 2881, titled the West Virginia Intrastate Commerce Improvement Act, is co-sponsored by Delegate Ray Canterbury, and seeks to bind all local governments to state law in regards to nondiscrimination laws.
West Virginia currently does not have a nondiscrimination law for the gay and lesbian community – the most recent attempt to pass such a law failed in 2013. However, several municipalities in the state, including Lewisburg, have passed non-discrimination ordinances based on sexual orientation and gender identity. But, according to a 2013 report by the UCLA School of Law think tank, the Williams Institute, they have little teeth. According to the report, Lewisburg’s human rights ordinance is “largely symbolic” in that it “authorizes the formation of a human rights commission, but it only exists on the books and not in reality.”
House Bill 2881 stands to weaken local laws even further. The bill states that its purpose is to ensure “that businesses, organizations and employers doing business in West Virginia are subject to uniform nondiscrimination laws and obligations,” and would prohibit the enforcement of “a local law, ordinance, resolution, rule or policy that creates a protected classification or prohibits discrimination not contained in state law.”
Bill sponsors tout the proposed legislation as a pro-business move which will allow businesses the freedom to function the way their owners see fit, but opponents of the bill see it as institutionalized discrimination.
Fairness West Virginia, an LGBT civil rights organization, calls HB 2881 the “Abolishing Local Liberty Bill,” and says it “seeks to usurp the power of city councils across West Virginia, nullify all standing nondiscrimination ordinances and resolutions, and make any future efforts of local government for nondiscrimination illegal.”
Just earlier this month, Fairness West Virginia congratulated the town of Thurmond, near Beckley, for being the smallest town in the United States to pass a nondiscrimination ordinance on behalf of LGBT people. The town has a population of five people. The ordinance, passed on Feb. 9, is the latest such ordinance to be passed in West Virginia. Other West Virginia towns with anti-LGBT discrimination laws on their books include Charleston, Morgantown, Harpers Ferry and Buckhannon. Huntington has a law against discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation only. The proposed HB 2881 would wipe those laws from the books.
But, despite the lawmakers’ attempt to make West Virginia more business friendly by allowing companies to fire LGBT people at will, many large companies in the state seem to fall on the side of the gay community. According to the Williams Institute, West Virginia employers including West Virginia University, Marshall University, Appalachian Power and Frontier have non-discrimination policies already in place. Procter and Gamble, which is set to open a plant in Berkeley County in the Eastern Panhandle, publicly came out in support of gay marriage in November 2014.
House Bill 2881 is sponsored by Karen “Lynn” Arvon (R-Raleigh), Tom Fast (R-Fayette), Kayla Kessinger (R-Fayette), Mike Azinger (R-Wood), Jim Butler (R-Mason), Rick Moye (D-Raleigh), Rupert Phillips Jr. (D-Logan), Danny Hamrick (R-Harrison), Ray Canterbury (R-Greenbrier), David G. Perry (D-Fayette) and Anna Border-Sheppard (R-Wood).
As of press time, Canterbury did not respond to the Mountain Messenger’s request for comment.